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Fact-Checking Fact-Checks : Did 21 Million Cell Phones Disappear In China?


(Did 21 million cell phones really disappear in China? Is China hiding actual coronavirus figures in their country?)

Republic World’  website has recently debunked a ‘ viral rumour’  about the ‘insane number of cell phone accounts (21 million)’  that suddenly disappeared in China after the start of the C-Virus pandemic in November. A report on the website rubbished those believing that ” the number of mobile phones disappearing was equal to the number of deaths in China.” 

Easternlink ran a story by James Alavi about US intelligence presenting a report to President Donald Trump on these lines. Alavi did not vouch or reject the US intelligence report — but as a veteran security affairs correspondent, he reported on the report. If the intelligence agencies of a Superpower presented such a report to its President, it was bonafide material for reporting in the public domain. The US did not deny the existence of such an intelligence report — so our story stands.

But Easternlink also subsequently ran a report based on Fact-check site  which raised doubts about the claims. Reporting the US intelligence report and then running stories challenging it was fair journalism.

In the spirit of even subjecting our own stories to rigorous verifications , we would therefore like to run on our site, key elements of the ‘Republic World’ fact-check report as below :

  • Many articles came out a few days ago that mentioned the vanishing of 21 million mobile subscribers in China. 
  • This led to many social media users and even the online media portals co-relate the decrease in 21 million cell phones in China to the numverber of deaths in the country. 
  • The rumour then started speculating a conspiracy theory which indicated that China is hiding the number of deaths in the country. As the speculations connected the sudden vanishing of the 21 million mobile subscribers with the number of deaths in the country, which had been reported to be over 82,000.

Republic World did a fact check on the China cell phone disappearing rumour

  • The rumour that 21 million cell phones disappeared in China is misinterpreted.
  • The original news was about how China mobile carriers have lost 21 million subscribers amidst the Coronavirus pandemic. So, no mobile phones had actually vanished literally, it was just the number of mobile subscriptions that were cancelled during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The “China Mobile Ltd”, which is the world’s largest mobile carrier, has reported having its first decline in the number of users since 2000. This is due to the cuts in the business activity amidst the coronavirus crisis.
  • It is reported that within January and February, the subscriptions of “China Mobile Ltd” fell by more than 8 million, as mentioned on their company’s website.
  • Another China mobile carrier company called China Unicom (Hong Kong) Ltd lost 7.8 million users in the same period. While China Telecom corporation lost 5.6 million users in February.
  • Expert analysts believe that the drop in the mobile users could partly be responsible for the number of migrant workers who cancelled their work region mobile subscriptions as the virus prevented them from entering the country after the lunar holidays in China.
  • The migrant workers usually have one subscription for their work location and another subscription for their home region.  
  • Though the drop in the number of users is not normal, when looking at the bigger picture, the number of subscription cancellations is small with respect to the total number of wireless subscriptions that have risen for these 3 companies.
  • All the three companies, i.e. China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom, observed a rise of 1.6 billion subscribers when the numbers of the three companies are added. So, the overall rising number of wireless connections with respect to the drop in the number of users is still small. 
  • The fallen numbers of the mobile carrier subscriptions are expected to see a rise (starting from the end of March) as the factories and other businesses in China are starting to resume in the second half of March.

It is true that the drop in mobile phone subscriptions does not automatically translate to a number of people who might have died of the C-Virus in China. 

But as they say, if there is smoke, there is fire.
Interestingly, after this ‘viral rumor’ or “US intelligence reports’, the Chinese in April quickly made an upward revision of their casualty figures.

Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the coronavirus first emerged late last year, revised sharply upwards its death toll from the disease, admitting people died at home and cases were missed as hospitals struggled to cope in the early days of the outbreak.

The adjustment, detailed in a social media post by the city government in mid-April,  increased the death toll by 1,290 – about 50 percent – bringing the total to 3,869. The revision brought the number of dead across China to 4,632.

If these people had died, as is claimed, in Nov-Dec 2019 or in Jan’2020 , what explains the delay of three to four months by the ‘very efficient’ Chinese system to revise the casualty figures upwardly .

It is also surprising that the Chinese ‘wolf warrior diplomats’  and aggressive spokespersons, who have challenged the Western allegations blaming China for negligence and concealment in reporting the C-virus pandemic, have been silent on the ‘viral rumors’ linking drop of 21 million mobile phone subscriptions to possible deaths. 

This even after the US government kept asserting that China has concealed the extent of the coronavirus outbreak in its country, under-reporting both total cases and deaths  suffered from the disease.

Like the initial report on the drop of 21 million mobile subscription and the company-wise data they presented to Trump, the U.S. intelligence community concluded in a classified report to the White House in late March  that China’s public reporting on cases and deaths is “intentionally incomplete.” The Bloomberg quoted three senior US officials on this report , two of whom said the intelligence report concludes that China’s numbers are fake. 

The officials asked not to be identified because the report was a secret, and they declined to detail its contents.

The report was received by the White House in the last week of March , one of the officials said.

And Donald Trump , who had rejected the previous reports warning of a pandemic in China , finally put his weight behind the US intelligence community.

After receiving the classified report in late March , Trump said that China’s reported virus data appear to be on the “light side”.

“Their numbers seem to be a little bit on the light side, and I’m being nice when I say that,” he said at a daily coronavirus briefing at the White House.

Since then, Trump has tried to mobilize global opinion to hold China accountable for the spread of the pandemic and underplaying its extent. 

He has called for and managed to push the Chinese to accept an inquiry into the origins of the C-Virus, supported by more than 100 nations including India. 

But Easternlink has not jumped into the American bandwagon.

In its just over two months of existence, it has exposed through painstaking investigation (not made easy by the lockdown) that the Coronavirus, like the Hantavirus,  was originally a US bio-weapon developed with other pathogens in the 1960s.

It has also exposed that the US was funding the dangerous ‘functions research’ in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a funding that Obama stopped in 2015 and Trump stopped a year later ,  thereby suggesting that the US cannot just put the whole blame on China.

So in its ‘spare-none-but-fair-to-all’ kind of journalism, Easternlink was right in reporting the claims of US intelligence about the huge drop in Chinese mobile phone subscriptions (which Beijing has not denied) after the pandemic.  It holds that both Beijing and Washington have to come clean on the actual extent of the pandemic, casualties et al and also on the funding and the progress of the ‘functions research’ at Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The world deserves the truth and an united effort to fight the virus, not blame-games and word-wars, certainly not real wars at this juncture.

(Subir Bhaumik, a former BBC & Reuters journalist and author, is now editorial director at Easternlink)

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